There’s an immediate connection forged in a Michael Hanson image, between the viewer and the subject. Whether it’s a gaucho in Patagonia, or a child with big dreams in the suburbs of California, you always feel as if you’re there, drawn into the moment as a participant rather than an outsider. Michael’s versatility is on display with his award-winning work at Aurora, which spans the gamut from documentary to humorous moments caught while exploring the great outdoors in his adopted Pacific Northwest.
We caught up with Michael in between his travels and personal projects to ask what inspires him to tell these stories, and how he got his start.
Aurora: You were a scrappy minor league baseball player in the Atlanta Braves organization and now you’re a well known documentary photographer. What inspired that change? What lessons did you learn as an athlete that have helped you your photography career?
Michael Hanson: A ‘scrappy minor league player’ is often a synonym for a ‘not-so-talented but boy, do you work hard’ player (which is pretty accurate for me, so good intro question). I hope I have a little more talent with the camera but maybe not. The transition was easy for me. Dayton Moore, the director of player development, told me I should think of my next career. That and every time I saw my batting average on the jumbo-tron, I knew the end was near. I like to think I worked hard for a decade or more to be able to compete on the field with some really good players and maybe the same can be said about photography. Both are pretty difficult industries to really make it. Luckily, I love both. I was obsessed with baseball while playing and now I seem to be consumed by photography. When I was in the minors I was exposed to a really interesting culture and it was a conscious decision to start shooting it. That’s how I started my photography career.
Au: There’s a sense of connection to the subject in all of your images, which are candid, open and honest. How are you able to immerse yourself in a culture and be accepted by people, so that the perspective you show viewers is no longer one of an outsider?
MH: Curiosity, I guess. It looks authentic because it is. It’s more fun and fulfilling if my interaction is genuine. Some photographers might be able to get good photographs without that interaction but I like the interaction as much as I like having a good set of images. And, I know the images will be better if I can get access to the subject’s lives and they don’t look at me as an outsider with a camera.
Au: Where do you find inspiration on a daily basis to tell your subjects’ stories?
MH: It’s hard to answer. I just don’t want to list photographers I like and magazines I read and say it’s that simple. I get inspiration from my friends, other photographers, editors, people who aren’t in the art world at all. There are a handful of photographers I really like and are working on subjects or with certain styles that inspire me. Jonas Bendikson has always been a favorite of mine. Aurora’s own David McLain is another. And, lately Erika Larsen is a pleasure to see. So much of the inspiration that we find comes from the people doing what they do, whether that’s teaching or starting an urban farm or whatever it is they do. That’s the inspiration, and we just have to figure out how to tell it simply and not let production get in the way of the story. When I’m shooting in a remote location, there’s not a ton of room for inspiration. The subject is doing what they do, with or without me there, and if I set myself up correctly with good light and don’t drop the camera, all I have to do is figure out how to make a clean frame that accurately describes the subject. Of course, my research has given me an idea of what to expect in that situation.
Part of the inspiration comes from the fear of failure. I like being a photographer and I want to keep being one. I want to tell an accurate story so I better be inspired to put the work in. I’m inspired by people who are trying to use their images or work for good. That’s a wide net but I think we all admire those individuals and they inspire us.
Au: You’ve been able to get great access to the Amish community, a religion that, in your words, “shuns photography,” and capture some deeply personal and candid imagery. What was the inspiration behind shooting them, and what drives you to keep trying to get access?
MH: At first it was simply the challenge of getting images from inside a small community. After spending a few days with them, I realized how unique their lifestyle was, and it was smack right in the middle of our country. Again, the curiosity of a unique culture might be enough to drive me to get to know them more and document something that isn’t often accessible. I’ll still visit them and have developed some good relationships.
Au: You have a brother who is also a photographer. Do you find yourself competing with him or do you bounce ideas off each other?
MH: We still wrestle daily for assignments just like we did after I beat him in Tecmo Bowl in 1989-1993. We haven’t had too many clients that overlap. Occasionally, we do and are supportive of each other. We have different styles I think. I’m more documentary and he has a little more fine art in his work. We definitely bounce ideas off each other. And, we work together often on the video projects with our good friend Brett Schwager on ModocStories.com. Working together is a nice way to not compete.
Au: If you weren’t making pictures, what would you be doing?
MH: Well, damn, I would say playing in the big leagues, but I already went down that road and it was a dead end. Maybe some sort of research biology. I tend to like science-y work. My friend is a hydrologist, and I think that’d be cool. But probably just an A-list movie star on the side to be safe, like Eric Estrada or something. Ya know, gotta pay the bills.